New Orleans mayor: Please don’t come home yet

NEW ORLEANS–Anxious evacuees across the country clamored to come home Tuesday after their city was largely spared by Hurricane Gustav, but Mayor Ray Nagin warned they may have to wait in shelters and motels a few days longer.

NEW ORLEANS–Anxious evacuees across the country clamored to come home Tuesday after their city was largely spared by Hurricane Gustav, but Mayor Ray Nagin warned they may have to wait in shelters and motels a few days longer.

The city’s improved levee system helped avert a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, which flooded most of the city, and officials got an assist from a disorganized and weakened Gustav, which came ashore about 72 miles southwest of the city Monday morning. Eight deaths were attributed to the storm in the U.S. after it killed at least 94 people across the Caribbean.

But New Orleans was still a city that took a glancing blow from a hurricane: A mandatory evacuation order and curfew remained in effect. Electric crews started work on restoring power to the nearly 80,000 homes and businesses in New Orleans—and more than 1 million in the region—that remained without power after the storm damaged transmission lines that snapped like rubberbands in the wind.

“We have a massive caravan of crews coming to the city, and they should be here this morning to fix the rest of the power outages,” Nagin said on the CBS Early Show. The city’s sewer system was damaged, and hospitals were working with skeleton crews on backup power. Drinking water continued to flow in the city, and the pumps that keep it dry never shut down—two critical service failings that contributed to Katrina’s toll. The FAA said the city’s airport was expected to reopen at 7 p.m.

Gustav was downgraded to a tropical depression early Tuesday, and mandatory evacuation orders were lifted for three Southeast Texas counties. The storm’s maximum sustained winds decreased to near 35 mph as it puttered toward northern Louisiana and east Texas. Up to 8 inches of rain was expected, and flood warnings were posted.

Nagin cautioned that Tuesday would be too early for residents to return to New Orleans, but their homecoming was “only days away, not weeks.”

He apologized to the Republicans, which put the pagentry of their convention on hold to wait for Gustav to move through the Gulf Coast.

“You know, I think Gustav rained on their parade, on their little party,” said Nagin, a Democrat, who cut his own trip short to his party’s convention to prepare for the storm. “And hopefully they can rekindle. We’d love to host them in New Orleans next week, and they can come down and we can show them how to really do it right.”

Crews combed the city Tuesday to fully review the damage, Nagin said, with the goal of having residents return beginning late Wednesday or Thursday.

Retailers and other major companies could start sending workers Wednesday to check on their locations, he said. Buses are in place and ready to bring residents back with instructions to drop them off as close as possible to their homes.

The state and city took pride in a massive evacuation effort that succeeded in urging people to leave or catch buses and trains out: Almost 2 million people left coastal Louisiana, and only about 10,000 people rode out the storm in New Orleans.

President Bush, who monitored the storm from Texas, said that while it’s too early to assess Hurricane Gustav’s damage to U.S. oil infrastructure off the Gulf Coast, it should prompt Congress to OK more domestic oil production. He said when Congress comes back from recess, lawmakers “need to understand” that the nation needs more, not less, domestic energy production.

Though the big city was spared, Gustav devastated parts of Cajun country, destroying homes and flooding parts of the mostly rural, low-lying parishes across the state’s southeastern and central coast that are also home to the state’s oil and natural gas.

AP

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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